DeWine signs Ohio coronavirus immunity bill

By Peggy Kirk Hall, director of agricultural law, Ohio State University Agricultural and Resource Law Program

It took five months of negotiation, but the Ohio General Assembly has enacted a controversial bill that grants immunity from civil liability for coronavirus injuries, deaths, or losses. Governor DeWine signed House Bill 606 on September 14, stating that it strikes a balance between reopening the economy and keeping Ohioans safe. The bill is effective in 90 days. 

The bill’s statement of findings and declaration of intent illustrate why it faced disagreement within the General Assembly. After stating its findings that business owners are unsure of the tort liability they may face when reopening after COVID-19, that businesses need certainty because recommendations on how to avoid COVID-19 change frequently, that individuals who decide to go out in public places should bear responsibility for taking steps to avoid exposure to COVID-19, that nothing in existing Ohio law established duties on business and premise owners to prevent exposure to airborne germs and viruses, and that the legislature has not delegated authority to Ohio’s Executive Branch to create new legal duties for business and premises owners, the General Assembly made a clear declaration of intent in the bill. It states this: “Orders and recommendations from the Executive Branch, from counties and local municipalities, from boards of health and other agencies, and from any federal government agency do not create any new legal duties for purposes of tort liability” and “are presumed to be irrelevant to the issue of the existence of a duty or breach of a duty….and inadmissible at trial to establish proof of a duty or breach of a duty in tort actions.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Diane Grendell (R-Chesterland), refers to it as the “Good Samaritan Expansion Bill.” That name relates to one of the two types of immunity in the bill, a temporary qualified immunity for coronavirus-based claims against health care providers. In its original version of H.B. 606, the House of Representatives included only the health care immunity provisions. More applicable to farms and other businesses are the bill’s general immunity provisions, added to the final legislation by the Senate.

General immunity from coronavirus claims

The new law will prohibit a person from bringing a civil action that seeks damages for injury, death or loss to a person or property allegedly caused by exposure to or transmission of coronavirus, with one exception. The civil immunity does not apply if the exposure to or transmission of coronavirus resulted from a defendant’s “reckless conduct,” “intentional misconduct,” or “willful or wanton misconduct.” “Reckless conduct” means disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk that conduct or circumstances are likely to cause exposure to or transmission of coronavirus and having “heedless indifference” to the consequences.

Government guidelines don’t create legal duties

Consistent with the bill’s stated intent, the new law clarifies that a claimant cannot assert liability based on a failure to follow government guidelines for coronavirus. The law states that any government order, recommendation or guideline for coronavirus does not create a duty of care that can be enforced through a civil cause of action. A person may not admit such orders and guidelines as evidence of a legal right, duty of care or new legal cause of action. 

No class actions

Another provision in the new law also prohibits a class action that alleges liability for coronavirus exposure or transmission if the law’s general immunity provisions do not apply.

Time period covered

The general immunity provisions apply only to a specified period of time: from March 9, 2020, when the Governor declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19, until September 30, 2021.

Workers compensation not addressed

An earlier version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives would have classified coronavirus as an “occupational disease” and would have allowed food workers, first responders and corrections officers to receive workers’ compensation benefits for the disease. However, the Senate removed the workers’ compensation provisions from the final bill based on its belief that the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation is already covering 85% of such claims.

What does H.B. 606 mean for agricultural businesses?

The new law provides certainty that agricultural businesses won’t be assailed by lawsuits seeking damages for COVID-19. A person claiming harm from exposure to COVID-19 at an agricultural business will only be successful upon a showing that the business acted recklessly and with intentional disregard or indifference to the possibility of COVID-19. That’s a high evidentiary standard and burden of proof for a claimant. 

As is often the case when an immunity bill is enacted, however, there are several reasons why businesses should not let down their guards because of the new law. Note that while the law rejects government guidelines and orders about COVID-19 as a basis for placing legal duties upon businesses, following such guidelines and recommendations counters an allegation of reckless or indifferent behavior about COVID-19 exposure or transmission. And there can be consequences from COVID-19 other than litigation, such as impacts on customer and employee health and safety, workers’ compensation claims, and negative publicity from an alleged COVID-19 outbreak. Continuing to take reasonable actions to manage COVID-19 and documenting actions taken can enhance the certainty offered by Ohio’s new COVID-19 immunity law.

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